PGA tournament shines bright light on Wilmington and Delaware

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A parade of fans stream into Wilmington Country Club for the opening round.

A parade of fans stream into Wilmington Country Club for the opening round. (Cris Barrish/WHYY)

Alison Cohen and Lori Connolly live in the suburbs of Baltimore and had never spent a weekend in the Wilmington area.

That changed during the BMW Championship golf tournament, which wrapped up Sunday at Wilmington Country Club on the outskirts of the city.

The best friends stayed for three nights at Wilmington’s Hotel du Pont, and when they weren’t at the course watching some of the PGA’s best players, they dined at some of Market Street’s swankier restaurants and enjoyed a block party downtown.

Alison Cohen (left) and Lori Connolly pose for a photo at the PGA tour while holding their drinks
Fans Alison Cohen (left) and Lori Connolly spent three nights in the Wilmington area, spending their days at the course and evenings downtown. (Cris Barrish/WHYY)

At the 18th hole on Sunday, a satisfied but exhausted Cohen was sipping iced coffee before making the 75-mile drive home to Pikesville, Maryland. “We’ve definitely made the most of our experience here,” she said.

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Cohen raved about the “historic” hotel, where her grandparents stayed during their honeymoon
“forever ago.”

She praised their “phenomenal” meal at La Fia and “delicious” food at Bardea, where fan favorite Rory McIlroy also dined during the tournament. Cohen thought downtown was clean, though quieter than expected, and didn’t like the fact that Starbucks was closed Sunday morning. Otherwise, she liked what she saw.

“I would definitely come back for another weekend and maybe try a few more of the restaurants that we’ve heard are good,” Cohen said. “It’s nice and close to us.”

Connolly said that’s why big events are good for small cities like Wilmington.

“You bring new people in and boost the economy a little bit for a nice long weekend,” Connolly said.

That’s exactly the kind of enthusiasm and spending local officials hoped the biggest sporting event in northern Delaware history would generate.

Conor Dempster watches the PGA tour in Wilmington
Conor Dempster of Tabernacle Township, New Jersey, watched the action at the 18th green. He was one of the 130,000 spectators at Wilmington Country Club, (Cris Barrish/WHYY)

About 130,000 fans were expected to attend the semifinals of the Fed-Ex Cup playoffs, which featured 70 golfers. Tourism officials anticipated an economic boost in the tens of millions of dollars, with hopes that people will return for other events, sightseeing, or just to get a meal.

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Visitors packed hotels and restaurants around town, and the course was packed all four rain-free days. Fans paraded around the course, either following their favorite players or wandering from hole to hole. Thousands gathered near the 18th hole, where an amphitheater of sorts had been erected. Kids also clamored around the autograph zone, where many players, but not all, were more than happy to oblige their youngest adorers after completing their rounds each day.

Jack Enslen of York County, Pennsylvania, showed off a ball signed by Justin Thomas. “I was trying to get Rory, but he didn’t come over for signatures” on Saturday, Enslen said.

Jack Enslen shows off a golf ball signed by Justin Thomas
Jack Enslen of York County, Pennsylvania, shows off a ball signed by PGA star Justin Thomas. (Cris Barrish/WHYY)

For duffer Garrad Gray of Elkton, Maryland, just seeing professional golf at its highest level was the prize. He watched earlier rounds on TV, then trekked up to the country club for Sunday’s final round.

“I think it’s great for the city,” Gray said while relaxing near the 18th hole. “Hopefully everything ran smooth this week so that the PGA says they did a great job and come back for something different. And the announcers on TV were talking a lot about the city, and [showing] aerial shots of the course. Everything looked good.”

New Castle County Executive Matt Meyer, whose inspectors oversaw the construction of more than 250,000 square feet of new construction on the country club grounds, watched the final hour of competition from the BMW hospitality suite on the final hole.

Garrard Gray sits on the grass at the PGA tour in Wilmington
Garrard Gray of Elkton, Maryland, relaxes near the 18th hole during Sunday’s final round. (Cris Barrish/WHYY)

“To have Rory McIlroy, the best golfers in the world, rolling through here, it’s a treasure,” said Meyer, who had called the event “our Super Bowl” before it began.

“What we don’t know is how many of these people will come back,” Meyer said, “Now they know Delaware. It puts us on the map. This is for us, I think in some ways for tourism, as big, maybe even bigger than Joe [Biden] becoming president.”

Winner Patrick Cantlay praises ‘great energy all week’

Throughout the week, several players had kind words about the course and the crowd at Delaware’s first PGA event.

Will Zalatoris, who ultimately withdrew from the tournament due to a back injury, called the course “incredible,” saying the 7,530-yard layout made it a “big boy course.”

Tournament winner Patrick Cantlay also had kind words after earning a $2.7 million payday from the $15 million purse.

Winner Patrick Cantlay hoists the championship trophy at the BMW Championship at Wilmington Country Club
Winner Patrick Cantlay hoists the championship trophy on Sunday. (Cris Barrish/WHYY)

“We saw how excited the fans were this week. They were amazing,” Cantlay said during his press conference Sunday. “And this golf course provided great theater, especially coming to the last hole. And it was a great feel and great energy all week.”

Christine and Jeff Mitchell were delighted to have their club host the event and be lauded by the pros.

“Oh my goodness, you can’t even put it into words what it’s meant to the club,” Christine Mitchell said. “The volunteers, the people who have put in so much time and effort, they’ve done such a great job, and the city has benefited so much from it. All the businesses are thriving.”

Christine and Jeff Mitchell pose for a photo at the PGA tour in Wilmington
Christine and Jeff Mitchell raved about how their country club prepared for and pulled off Delaware’s first PGA event. (Cris Barrish/WHYY)

Jeff Mitchell was one of 400 members among the 2,100 tourney volunteers.

“It’s a great opportunity to showcase the state of Delaware and Wilmington Country Club and how beautiful our course is,” he said. “I think it’s going to bring some new interest into the golf course. It’s drawing a lot of people here and a lot of interest.”

Rich Peterson of the Western Open, the organization that sponsors the tournament that once bore its name before BMW became the sponsor, took a short break from his job as public address announcer on the 18th hole to congratulate the club and Delaware officials.

“The golf course has been in pristine shape. It’s a tough golf course for these guys. And you can tell that by the scores,” Peterson said of a tournament where Cantlay won with a score of 14 under par. “You can tell that by how careful they are with their putts. It’s been a wonderful experience.”

Rich Peterson is seen at the PGA tour in Wilmington
Public address announcer Rich Peterson said the PGA tournament was a success. (Cris Barrish/WHYY)

Peterson, who lives in Illinois, stayed at the Westin hotel on Wilmington’s riverfront, and dined twice at the Big Fish restaurant.

“The area has been terrific,” Peterson said. “I’ve been here since last Saturday. And wonderful restaurants, good hotels. It’s been a great experience.”

Earl Cooper, a native Wilmingtonian who once was a golf pro at the club and now owns the Eastside Golf apparel company, agreed.

“It’s been fantastic for Wilmington,” Cooper said. “I love how the golf course has held up. The crowds have been great. I think it’s done a lot for the city economically, done a lot for the area.”

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